If it is a task at the verge of impossibility to recommend all the Hungarian writers I would like to, it is only slightly less hard to select just a handful to share. There are, for example, the many writers designated in Hungarian as “classical”, the word itself more or less synonymous with deceased (I still recall the response from one online bookseller with respect to a leading contemporary poet of the older generation – “Not classical! She lives!”), whose work has never been translated, or was poorly translated, or at best has appeared only in fragments. They well could be designated as a “canon,” in the sense of an indigenous scaffolding of literary knowledge with which every educated Hungarian is presumed to have much more than a passing acquaintance. Obviously, a nation with Hungary’s history and geography will certainly have experienced strong politicization of its literary canon, and the process is hardly a merely historical question, if we recall the recent controversies over official attempts at bringing right-wing nationalist authors directly into the Hungarian school curriculum. Nevertheless, the ranks of those Hungarian writers seen as essential have remained surprisingly autonomous throughout the tortuous course of ideologies and power-systems, and—at least for the pre-World War II authors—there is far more consensus on the individual figures in the canon than might be expected.
So I could recommend a historical canon. On the other hand, there are the writers active today, the living and thus un-”classical” creators across several generations. There are senior figures with definite international name recognition, even despite recent losses (most notably Péter Esterházy this past year); there is the post-1989 generation, which is now moving into middle age; there are the very youngest authors still persisting with a commitment to the Hungarian language and its legacy in spite of the illiberality and defiant philistinism of much of Hungarian public life today. And, especially for the emerging writer, there is the struggle for recognition in the “market” of world literature—most often in the form of a break into the German market, as the primary gatekeeper for the chance at world recognition.
Then there is another group of writers who are particularly significant to me as a translator, because they are the writers who perhaps were most formative in their influence on the writers I am translating today. For the fact is that, in looking at Hungarian literature over the course of the 20th century and into the early millennium, what strikes one—for all the violent ruptures—is the extraordinary continuity of literary life and “generations,” as Hungarians themselves formulate it. This extraordinary microcosm of an extraordinary literary culture is now suffering additional stresses under Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime, and only time will tell how it will evolve. Still though, the history of Hungarian literature in the 20th century, the extraordinary resiliency of its creators faced with genocide, deportation, totalitarianism, and the three T’s (Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott: prohibited, tolerated, and supported) tends to fill one with hope.
With all these factors in mind, I decided to write about five writers who embody something of all the aspects listed above.
Zsuzsa Beney (1930-2006)
Zsuzsa Beney trained as a doctor, and, until she was 70, worked as a lung specialist, in addition to teaching literature in both Pécs and Miskolc. She published her first book of poetry when she was 42 (the introduction written by none other than Sándor Weöres), and she kept on publishing up to her death. She was a compassionate and caring doctor: “She truly loved her patients,” as someone who’d known her well once put it to me.
Compassion and a deep sensitivity to loss and fragility are the hallmarks of her work, and she forms a part of her own generation of female poets who came of age after the traumas of the Second World War, along with other creators such as Ágnes Gergely (1933- ) and Magda Székely (1936-2007). She lost both her husband early in her marriage and her son when he was still a toddler: both of these haunting losses marked her work for the decades to come. She was the poet of absence par excellence, her work finely cast miniatures of echoing memory. Her essays also need to be mentioned here, if only briefly: her writing on the canonical poet Attila József (1905-1937) is probably the most perceptive I’ve ever read.
In the following poem, an allegory of translation, Beney’s preoccupation with passage across invisible borders is evident. The passage through language and the paradox of disappearance as a kind of fulfillment is rendered beautifully in George Szirtes’ deeply eloquent translation.
He steps into the poem. Rock. It closes
behind him, he too becomes rock.
He becomes absorbed in the cell
Of the bones, in their vaulted arcades.
But while he freezes, the clay about him
roasts at white heat, eventually melts,
and from the glowing magma there blossoms
a whole new framework, the rose in the desert.
And as for him, he turns from rock, is enclosed
within the rock, is resurrected, vanishes
on the road that leads through his body
from fullness into wholeness.
(This poem was drawn from the anthology Centres of Cataclysm, published by Modern Poetry in Translation, and—take note!—all proceeds go to Refugee Charities in the UK.)
János Pilinszky (1921-1981)
I know that many readers of The Quarterly Conversation are no doubt acquainted with Pilinszky’s work, and perhaps he doesn’t even need that much of an introduction for this audience. But I’m including him nonetheless, because Pilinszky is the kind of writer who should always be at the forefront of our attention—particularly these days, when many of the gains of 1989 are severely threatened, and so many parts of the globe seem to be turning back to tribalism. Writers like Pilinszky teach us something about spiritual survival in the dark times. I’m not sure how much of his biography needs to be repeated—a childhood spent under Miklós Horthy’s “soft” dictatorship between the wars, being drafted into Hungarian army as a young man, witnessing the German horrors at Ravensbrück—his own martyrdom of witness—and the rest of his life spent in a quest to come to terms with the horrors he had witnessed in terms of his own deeply Catholic spirituality, strongly influenced by the thinking of Simone Weil, over endless cups of Nescafé (Pilinszky’s favorite beverage). What is certain, however, that without Pilinszky, there never would’ve been a writer such as Szilárd Borbély. The spiritual path that Borbély walked upon, an ethically radical vision in which the folk Baroque traditions of Eastern Europe are not seen as disparate from the tragedy of the Hasidim of Szatmár County (as for example in his verse cycle Hasidic Sequences) finds its precedents in the work of Pilinszky, and takes them one step further. And like Pilinszky, Borbély’s poetic ear was tuned to the voices of society’s most marginalized and despised.
Pilinszky’s work is perhaps best-known through the translations that Ted Hughes made of his work, which the poet created on the basis of János Csokits’ rough versions. (In the edition The Desert of Love, Anvil Press, 1989, they are credited jointly.) And Pilinszky is one of the few Hungarian poets who has entered the European canon sufficiently enough to have been rendered in various translations over the years: his Quatrain (Négysoros: you can listen to the the poet reading the lines aloud himself here) has been translated a number of times. Here is Ted Hughes’s version:
Nails asleep under frozen sand.
Nights soaked in poster-loneliness.
You left the light on in the corridor.
Today my blood is shed.
One of Pilinszky’s most important poems—and one of the most important poetic statements on the 20th century anywhere and in any language—is Apocrypha, which relates the return of the (prodigal) son, now home from Europe’s killing fields. I’m including Peter Sherwood’s translation here in its entirety; for me at least, it succeeds beautifully at capturing the biblical terseness of the original. “You are nowhere to be found. How empty is the world” (Sehol se vagy. Mily üres a világ) are the two lines of poetry engraved permanently into the mind of any literate Hungarian.
For then shall all things be forsaken.
There will be set apart the silence of the heavens
and forever apart the silence
of the fallen fields of the end of the world
and apart again the silence of the dog-kennels.
In the air a fleeing host of birds.
And we shall see the rising sun,
dumb as the demented pupil of an eye
and calm as a watchful beast.
But keeping vigil in banishment— for then I cannot sleep at night—
I toss and turn as with its thousand leaves
the tree speaks at the dead of night:
Do you all know the procession of the years,
of the years on the creased fields?
And do you understand the wrinkle of transience,
do you know my care-worn hand?
And do you know the name of orphanhood?
And do you know the kind of pain
that treads here the eternal dark
on cracked hooves, on webbed feet?
The night, the cold, the pit,
the convict’s head jived askew,
do you know the frozen troughs,
do you know the torture of the abyss?
The sun has risen. Sticks of trees dark
in the infra-red of the wrathful sky.
So I set off. Facing the desolation
a man walks without a sound.
He has nothing. He has his shadow.
And his stick. And his prison dress.
This is why I learned to walk! For these
belated, bitter steps.
And evening will come, and the night will petrify
around me with its mud, and under closed eyelids
I continue to guard this procession,
these fevered shrubs and their tiny twigs,
the little, hot forest, leaf by leaf.
Once Paradise stood here.
In half-sleep, the renewing pain:
hear its gigantic trees!
Home— I wanted to get home at last,
to arrive as he in the Bible arrived.
My terrific shadow in the courtyard.
Care-worn silence, aged parents in the house.
And already they are coming, calling me,
poor souls, already crying, stumblingly embracing me.
The ancient order welcomes me back.
I lean out on the windy stars—
If just this once I could speak with you,
whom I loved so much. Year after year
I never tired of saying what a small child
sobs into the gap between the palings,
the almost choking hope
that I come back and find you.
Your nearness throbs in my throat.
I am startled, like a wild beast.
I do not speak your words, human speech.
There are birds alive
who are fleeing now as fast as they can
beneath the sky, the fiery sky.
Forlorn poles stuck in the blazing fields,
and burning cages immobile.
I do not understand human speech
and I do not speak your language.
My words are more homeless than the word!
I have no words.
Their terrible burden
tumbles down through the air,
the body of a tower utters sounds.
You are nowhere to be found. How empty is the world.
A garden chair, a deckchair left outside.
My shadow clatters among sharp stones.
I am tired. I jut out of the ground.
God sees me standing in the sun.
He sees my shadow on stone and fence.
He sees my shadow standing
without a breath in the airless press.
By then I am already like stone;
a dead shutter, a drawing of a thousand grooves,
a good handful of rubble
are the faces of the creatures by then.
And instead of tears, the wrinkles on the faces,
trickling, the empty ditch trickling down. *
Alaine Polcz (1922-2007)
A bit of literary gossip may be in order here: Alaine Polcz was the wife of the writer Miklós Mészöly (who himself was a major novelist; see, in English, Tim Wilkinson’s translation of Death of an Athlete; Mészöly was also a very important influence for László Krasznahorkai). But Alaine Polcz led a distinguished literary career in her own right, albeit from traumatic beginnings. She originally studied psychology and ended up working with terminally ill children, publishing many books on that subject. In 1991 she was instrumental in creating the Hungarian Hospice Foundation—she then served as its head for many years—a foundation which is operational to this day.
Her subsequent professional interest in trauma was possibly spurred by her own experiences at the end of World War II, during which she was repeatedly gang raped by Russian soldiers on Hungary’s eastern front (in Transylvania). She wrote about these experiences in Woman on the Front (Asszony a fronton), which exists in a fairly inelegant translation by Albert Tezla under the title of One Woman in the War: Hungary 1944-1945. Woman on the Front deserves to be re-issued in a better version, as it is a searing account—much more so than A Women in Berlin—of a woman’s experiences during war, the sheer vulnerability of a woman’s body, and how a woman’s consciousness registers these physical and psychic traumas. At the end of the war, Polcz finally makes her way to her mother—in Budapest during the entire time—and is forced to confront a final, even more devastating betrayal: when she tries to tell her mother what happened to her, her mother enunciates her calm belief that only prostitutes were raped by the Russians. In writing this book Polcz gave voice not only to her own experience but to the experience of tens and tens of thousands of women across Europe at the end of the war. It is perhaps not surprising that Polcz didn’t write about the subject until over 40 years later, but her treatment of this harrowing personal experience is truly exemplary among the literary treatments of grave personal trauma, and well deserving of international intention.
Readers of Hungarian are incredibly fortunate in that her publishers, Jelenkor, located in Pécs, have been re-issuing many of her writings in the past few years: these include dream diaries, diaries of journeys back to Transylvania, meditations on her work with death and mourning, on her work with children, and volumes of essays, among others. Many of these books exist within the interstices of literary “boundaries” and as such cannot necessarily be easily classified into one single genre. One interesting example is her book of “life-interviews” with one of her close childhood friends, Berta Bíró (Az életed, Bíró Berta), which is very reminiscent of the work of Svetlana Alexievich in how it resurrects the incidents of everyday life as narrative, in this case the everyday life of women in pre-war Eastern Europe. It is from these apparently minor narratives, however, that we are able to get a sense of history.
Krisztina Tóth (1967-)
Here I must confess to a certain measure of partisanship, as I’ve translated the work of Krisztina Tóth in the past and have enthusiastically commissioned translations of her work. Krisztina Tóth is one of those writers who grew up under communism but came of age during the euphoria and chaos of the early 1990s and the subsequent disillusionment with so-called free market democracy (or, if you will, neoliberalism). Her work reflects this double legacy, as well as reflecting her deep involvement with French and French literature: Tóth is fluent in that language, and she lived in Paris during her student years. The influence of the French Surrealists (a literary movement that had much less impact in Hungary than in, for example, interwar Czechoslovakia) is palpable in her work. She employs it to render the gruesomeness of Europe’s borderlands.
Tóth started out as a poet, rapidly getting recognition, as well as several prizes, but she has branched out very successfully into prose as well, usually working in shorter genres, as her volumes Barcode and Pixel attest. She is not interested in the “monumental” genres: her work includes many found “verbal objects” that she perceives all around her in Budapest: the musical tones and assonance of a phrase used by a workman discussing the M0 ring-road, overheard while taking her son to nursery school, words and phrases from the environs of the metro. She writes about relationships, the disintegrations of the female body, the minor strategies of life in late communist Hungary, the way the mythological slips almost accidentally into the everyday. She is, as a writer, so deeply attuned to the mysteries and the devastations inherent in the female body, sensing the plight of other women from afar as if by radar. See as well this excellent appreciation of her work here.
In the following poem, “Eastern European Triptych” (in my translation), Tóth evokes the life of the migrant worker:
The loudspeaker calls out our names
and we jump up. Our names are
misspelled and mispronounced,
but we smile graciously.
We take the soap from the hotel,
and arrive too early at the station.
With heavy suitcases, in baggy trousers,
everywhere one of our compatriots loitering.
The trains go with us in the wrong directions,
and if we pay, the small change rolls everywhere.
At our borders we’re afraid, and beyond that
we get lost, but recognize each other.
We know the other side of the world,
the sweat-drenched clothes beneath the coat.
Below us stands the escalator, the handle
of the shopping bag filled to bursting rips, and when
we leave, the alarm goes off.
Beneath our skin, like a radiating jewel,
is the microchip of a guilty conscience.
I know where you live, I know that city well.
I know that black rainfall.
Your mother used to sunbathe on the roof,
in the summer you swam in the quarry lake.
I know that man, his legs amputated,
who lives in the entranceway.
I know that country, I know
its trains, its cries, its chlorine heavens,
its acid rains, its lingering snowfalls,
its pale overly-swaddled infants.
I know where you live. No matter where it is,
if you happen to think of home, the road bordered
with the stumps of acacia trees
haunts you in your dreams.
During the feast, when they drag in
the tree, like a dead man, too heavy, grabbing at the foot,
you stop and look, as it is cast out to the others.
I know what you see: the disheveled heap of human bodies,
on every one of their extended yellow hands
a forgotten jewel: plundered
blue and gold Christmas-candy wrappers.
My name is Alina Moldova.
I come from Eastern Europe,
I am 170 centimeters in height,
my life expectancy is 56 years.
I have amalgam fillings in my teeth,
in my heart I carry an inherited dread.
When I speak English, no one understands me,
when I speak French, no one understands me,
It is only the language of fear
that I speak without an accent.
My name is Alina Moldova.
My heart valves are an unmanned rail-crossing,
poisons circulate within my veins,
my life expectancy is 56 years.
I support my ten-year-old son,
I get hold of some flour, step onto moving trains.
You can hit me, you can shake me,
but my earring only jangles a little,
like a loosened part
in a motor still running.
Gábor Schein (1969 – )
Another word of disclosure is called for, as in this case I’m writing about the work of a dear friend, whose work I’ve been translating for well over ten years. Gábor Schein is one of the most important voices to have emerged since the downfall of communism. Like Krisztina Tóth, he grew up under communism and was a young adult during the “Regime Change” of 1989. Now, during Hungary’s Restoration, he is a mature writer with a considerably broad perspective—this ranges from the issues of the present day (he has recently published a volume of trenchant essays on Hungary’s illiberal turn) deep into realms of the past both personal and historic. Similarly to Tóth, Schein began as poet—his first volume was published in 1991—but also successfully branched out into prose. He is well known as well as a dramatist, and has garnered numerous prizes in his native Hungary.
I was originally drawn to Schein’s work because its unflinching confrontation of questions of memory and loss in a society that would prefer to forget. His novella Lazarus, published in Hungarian in 2005, considers his own position as the son of a Holocaust survivor, confronting the inevitable fragmentation and disintegration of memory in an environment of willed forgetting, in a society supposedly once balanced on the edge of freedom. Lazarus was the first book of his I ever translated, and I was hooked.
Schein’s very first novel, The Book of Mordechai (forthcoming in a dual volume with Lazarus, translated by Adam Z. Levy and myself, from Seagull Books) is an intensely poetic meditation on Hungary’s Jewish past, as well as an invocation of the more recent past. In The Book of Mordechai, the Biblical story of Esther is interwoven with an invocation of Schein’s father’s childhood. The opening paragraph of The Book of Mordechai (translated by Adam Z. Levy) reads:
It is said of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol that in his youth he heard the future in the whispers of the trees. Then there was Nachman of Breslov, who could not sleep in his newly built house; among the fresh boards he felt as though he were lying with the dead. He heard voices as well but not those of the future. And after his first night in the house he woke his wife and three sons at dawn with great shouts, fire, he screamed, though the house had not yet begun to burn; he waited until they were all outside before he set it ablaze. What was it that Rabbi Zusha’s trees whispered? And what was it that the boards of Rabbi Nachman’s house said, the ones which stood charred by morning facing the prayer house? Of this there is little we can know. Where our story begins there are no forests, nor are there fields, and even if there were, our protagonists would not hear the words of the trees, if they still speak at all, if Rabbi Nachman had not been the last one to hear their voices, having burned out the words within them once and for all.
An oft-repeated analysis of the intellectual and spiritual climate of twentieth-century Europe, most notably voiced e.g. by Hungarian-German sociologist Karl Mannheim or Czech critic and editor Antonín Liehm, speaks of the key importance of generations in the course of this time, yet in the form of generations left indelibly separated from one another by the radical shifts and changes of history’s turbulence. With this in mind, what is most surprising in the realm of Hungarian literature is the extraordinary degree of generational continuity, of dialogue (spiritual, thematic, even intertextual) across the span of decades and experiences, unlike anything else I have experienced in other European literary contexts. All of the writers mentioned here are the intellectual descendants of the first “Nyugat generation”, named for the avant-garde literary magazine [Nyugat: West] founded in the early years of the 20th century, that nurtured some of Hungary’s greatest literary talents. It is common to refer to the second and even third “Nyugat generations” (taking us up to the early years of WWII). There is a way in which when I would sit down to talk to a writer such as Szilárd Borbély, for example, that I would have a palpable sense of those voices from close to a century ago—Attila József, Ernő Szép—almost as if they were unseen presences hovering around us.
Ottilie Mulzet translates from Hungarian and Mongolian, and writes literary criticism. Her translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below won the Best Translated Book Award in 2014. In 2016, her translations of both Szilárd Borbély’s volume of verse Berlin-Hamlet (New York Review Poets) and his novel, The Dispossessed (HarperPerennial), appeared. Forthcoming translations include Lazarus, by Gábor Schein (Seagull Books, 2017), and The Homecoming of Baron Wenckheim by László Krasznahorkai (New Directions, 2018). In addition she is completing a book of translations of Mongolian Buddhist legends.
* from: Ocean at the Window : Hungarian Prose and Poetry since 1945. Minneapolis, US: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 19 December 2016.
Copyright © 1977. University of Minnesota Press. All rights reserved.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- An Ism of One’s Own: On Volodine’s Writers However much the Formalists and New Critics insisted on maintaining an analytic gap between the work of literary interpretation and the life circumstances of authors, readers and reviewers generally expect a modicum of information about the author to come along with a book. Where such information is counterfactual, as in...
- Reaching One’s Promise: What Writers Need to Do to Last Ten Years In 1938, Cyril Connolly wrote a book about what writers needed to do to see their work last for 10 years. Jeremy Hatch determines if his predictions were accurate, and how contemporary writers might see their work continue to be read....
- Four Greek Writers That You Should (and Can) Read: Translator Karen Emmerich in San Francisco On Tuesday, May 12, the translator Karen Emmerich read from various Greek works that she has translated into English. She spoke before a packed crowd of about 60 in San Francisco’s Minna Gallery at 111 Minna St. and appeared the invitation of San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Ottilie Mulzet